“When do you think this will all be over?” is a common question these days for infectious disease doctors like me. With many aspects of our lives disrupted, from school to vacations to the economy, it’s common to feel fatigued. It is encouraging that new case numbers are down, in several states, and businesses are gradually reopening, but unfortunately the answer to that question is, “It’s not over yet.” Especially now that flu season has begun.
With the pandemic impinging on our daily lives, it can be hard to remember what day of the week it is, let alone what time of year. So here’s a reminder: It’s time to get your flu shot. Also, handwashing and mask-wearing are important to prevent influenza.
Flu season hits every year from October through March in the Northern hemisphere. For some people, the flu may be only a mild illness similar to a severe cold. For others, it can be deadly. The most challenging reality for infectious disease doctors is that influenza can be unpredictable. During the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, for example, young adults were at particularly high risk for severe disease, while the 2009 H1N1 “swine flu” season posed higher risk to pregnant women.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that last year’s flu season led to more than 500,000 hospitalizations and caused over 24,000 deaths in the US. Influenza is tricky because the virus mutates regularly, and each year different strains circulate. When the influenza virus mutates, small proteins on the surface of the virus change, and the body must form new protective antibodies specific to the new strains. Fortunately, researchers have learned from these patterns and can now predict which types of influenza strains will be most prevalent in the upcoming year and tailor the annual vaccine to target these strains. We know the flu vaccine is not perfect, but it does save lives, and this year it’s particularly important to get one.
Studies show that the flu vaccine:
— Lowers your risk of hospitalization for influenza.
— Lowers your risk of death from influenza if you are hospitalized for the infection.
— Protects those around you, at home and in the community (especially those unable to respond to vaccination).
— Lowers antibiotic use in the community, which is important to reducing multi-drug resistant pathogens.
— Has a strong track record of limited adverse reactions.
The CDC now recommends an annual influenza vaccine for every American over 6 months old.
While it’s important to remember your vaccine at the beginning of every fall season, the flu shot is especially important now. Anyone with a respiratory viral illness this fall will need to be tested for both COVID-19 and influenza. Testing resources are already stretched. Patients with severe symptoms may also take up hospital beds and require caregivers to use valuable personal protective equipment while awaiting test results. By lowering your chances of getting sick with the flu, you’re protecting resources needed to battle COVID-19.
Excuses for not getting the flu shot are pervasive, and I’ve heard them all. So let’s dispel most of these myths right now:
“I got sick from the flu shot.” The standard influenza vaccine contains no live virus, so it cannot cause influenza. Remember, flu season and the common cold season overlap, so sometimes there is coincidental timing between the vaccine and catching a cold. Many people have soreness in the arm, and even fewer develop muscle aches, fever, headache, or nausea. These are usually mild symptoms caused by the immune system responding appropriately to the vaccine, and they typically go away within one to two days.
“I never get the flu shot and I never get sick, so I don’t need one.” Different strains of influenza may affect different categories of people. Even healthy people can get very sick from the flu. It’s also important to remember that getting your flu shot protects people around you (like your grandparents or a neighbor with cancer) who are at high risk for severe infection and may not be able to respond to the vaccine.
“I’m worried about catching COVID at the doctor’s office.” Your doctor’s office has implemented precautionary measures to keep providers and patients safe, such as socially distanced waiting rooms, remote check in, pre-screening phone calls before visits, limited time slots, and universal masking policies. You can also get a flu shot at your local pharmacy. By getting a flu shot, you are actually reducing your risk of needing to go to the doctor’s office, urgent care or an emergency room with a respiratory virus in the future.
“I don’t want the flu shot because it will weaken my immune system and I’ll get sick with COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses.” Your immune system is not a muscle that needs exercise. Vaccines do not weaken the immune system, and there is no evidence that getting sick with more respiratory viral illnesses makes you less susceptible to other infections. The antibodies formed from the flu vaccine are unique to influenza– they do not fight off other viruses like coronavirus or rhinoviruses.
Centuries of experience and science have taught us a lot about the flu and how best to prevent it. We are fortunate we have solid vaccines that have a track record of reducing flu to a season, instead of a pandemic. We are hopeful that soon a COVID-19 vaccine will also offer us similar protections. Now that COVID-19 and the flu are side-by-side threats, we must all do our part to protect our health and public health: wash your hands, social distance, wear a mask, and please, get your flu shot this year. This is not the time to let fear or excuses get in the way.
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